Let’s Just Be Friends…The End of the Muslim Brotherhood’s Special Relationship with the Jordanian Monarchy, by Ryan Peisner

April 28, 2015 0 Comments

Jordan’s Muslim Brotherhood has long enjoyed special status in the country’s autocratic political system. In 1945, when the movement opened its offices in the country, King Abdullah was present to mark the occasion. And in 1957, when all other political parties were banned, the government classified the Brotherhood as a charitable/social organization, allowing it to continue to operate. This sympathetic treatment left the MB uniquely well-placed to take advantage of the restoration of parliamentary elections in 1989—no other party was able to develop a comparable political infrastructure in time. In exchange, though the MB and its de facto political wing, the Islamic Action Front, have not been shy about criticizing the monarchy, they have for the most part been careful to keep their criticism within relatively established boundaries. More importantly, the MB has stood by the Kingdom in times of crisis, and is credited with preventing Jordanian Islamists from being attracted to more radical and potentially violent movements. Though the government has grown increasingly unfriendly to the Brotherhood over the past two decades, it has always been wary of a full break with its former ally.[1] Until now.

Although some commentators have given the split a more recent provenance, the MB has been divided between two factions, often referred to as hawks and doves, since at least 1989.  In that year, their division was over whether participation in the forthcoming parliamentary elections could be justified on Islamic grounds, or whether a Muslim movement such as the Brotherhood should stay out of electoral politics. That debate was eventually resolved in favor of participation, but the split has remained. The doves generally favor greater participation in state institutions and cooperation with the monarchy, and are seen as drawn from Jordanians of East Bank origin, while the hawks are less reverential towards the Hashemite King, are relatively more concerned with foreign than domestic policy, and are supported more often by Jordanians of Palestinian origin. After over 20 years of more or less successfully managing these internal disagreements, the movement split into two, perhaps irrevocably, last month.

The immediate cause was the formation of the Zamzam Initiative (named after the Amman hotel where the movement was founded) by certain dovish Brotherhood officials in 2012, and the expulsion of those members from the Brotherhood in February of this year. Zamzam was created largely as a response to the overthrow of the Muslim Brotherhood government in Egypt and the subsequent banning of the movement in that country as well as in Saudi Arabia and the UAE. In the wake of those regional setbacks, the Zamzam founders sought to break the Jordanian entity’s tie with the increasingly controversial international movement and refocus it on what it saw as domestic, Jordanian issues.[2] The initiative’s leaders also called for the Brotherhood to participate in government institutions—the MB’s political wing had boycotted the past several elections in protest of the government’s repressive practices and unjust electoral law—and emphasized the need to respect the “prestige of the state.”[3] Eventually, this became too much for the hawkish MB leadership, and the Zamzam leaders were expelled by the Brotherhood’s Shura Council in February.[4]

Events then took a turn that the hawks did not expect. The expelled doves formed a new organization, and applied for and received recognition from the state as the “true” Muslim Brotherhood—putting the hawkish leadership of the old Brotherhood on the back foot, to say the least.[5]

Although it is perhaps understandable that the government should favor the friendly doves over the oppositional hawks, to some extent it is a violation of the rules of the game established over the past 20-plus years. In this formulation, the government largely tolerated the Brotherhood and its criticism of state policies, and in return the MB would keep that criticism within more or less well-defined boundaries, and help prevent Islamists from joining other, more radical, organizations. Thus, although Brotherhood criticism of the monarchy can certainly be pointed, it has never verged into violent opposition, even in times of national crisis such as during Black September in 1970, or more recently, the protests following the Arab Spring.

Though some of the MB’s criticism of the kingdom’s authoritarian policies undoubtedly made the government uncomfortable from time to time, that was part of the occasionally awkward deal between the parties. A Brotherhood which is pliant and subservient where the former organization was strident and critical may be more pleasant for the monarchy and its retainers, but is unlikely to have the same appeal to those searching for a true political alternative. It would seem improbable, to say the least, that the Jordanian state is not aware of this. The fact that it nevertheless chose to withdraw recognition of the old hawkish Brotherhood in favor of the dovish breakaway group indicates that the palace’s calculus has changed somehow—perhaps due to changing regional circumstances it views the hawks’ critique of government policies as more dangerous than it previously did, or perhaps it simply could not resist the opportunity to strike at a long-time rival. Whatever the case, the Hashemites seem to have taken the first step into a brave new world without an opposition that, for all its disagreements with the state, was ultimately a loyal one. If it finds that disgruntled Jordanians are driven to more radical groups in its stead, it may come to be a choice they regret.

[1] Emile Sahliyeh, “The State and the Islamic Movement in Jordan,” J. of Church and State, 47 (2005): 113-14 explains the privileges formerly granted to the Brotherhood by the Jordanian monarch; Janine Clark, “The Conditions of Islamic Moderation: Unpacking Cross-Ideological Cooperation in Jordan,” Int. J. of Middle East Studies, 38 (2006): 545-6 details the more recent deterioration in their relations.

[2] http://www.nytimes.com/2015/04/01/opinion/jordans-divided-brotherhood.html; http://www.al-monitor.com/pulse/politics/2013/08/egypt-coup-internal-division-jordan-brotherhood.html
[3] http://www.aawsat.net/2014/04/article55331497/jordans-muslim-brotherhood-split-over-zamzam-initiative
[4] http://www.al-monitor.com/pulse/originals/2015/03/jordan-muslim-brotherhood-revoke-membership-crisis.html
[5] http://www.nytimes.com/2015/04/01/opinion/jordans-divided-brotherhood.html


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